The Venice Questionnaire #22 – Adenrele Sonariwo

The lead curator of the first Nigerian Pavilion predicts all the hard work will pay off

Victor Ehikhamenor, The Prayer Room, 2016. Courtesy of the artist

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2017 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the lead-up to the Venice Biennale opening (13 May – 26 November). Adenrele Sonariwo is the lead curator of the first Nigerian Pavilion. The pavilion is at Scoletta La Scuola dell'Arte dei Tiraoro e Battior, Campo San Stae

What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

It will be an immersive experience. Being our debut presentation we decided it was important to tell a layered, multidimensional story which we will do through the presentation of sculpture, installation and performance. We plan to tell a story about time. Our exhibition, titled How About NOW?, is a meditation on the notions of time and identity as a consideration of the demands exerted by the present. Through the ‘now’ we reflect not only on our myths and histories as a country and society – that is Nigeria - but equally on how we choose to relay contemporary narratives in a fragmented, but interconnected, present. We have chosen three Nigerian artists who are currently producing at the height of their careers. For those who follow the artistic, cultural scene in Nigeria and Africa, their names will be familiar: Peju Alatise, Victor Ehikhamenor, and Qudus Onikeku. If you haven’t heard of them yet, should you come to our pavilion, they are names you will NOW not forget!

Ehikhamenor will tell his story from the beginning. He will present large-scale installations, titled The Biography of the Forgotten fusing abstract shapes with traditional sculpture and exploring the effect of colonialism on cultural heritage. The installation will pay homage to those that came before, their contributions to the art world, from the classicists to the modernists.

Onikeku will explore the present. He will showcase a trilogy of performance film titled Right Here, Right Now. The trilogy is an investigation through dance of the workings of body memory and its connection to national consciousness. It will provide a window through which time could be altered for a brief moment.

Alatise will foretell the future. She will present an installation of eight winged life-size girls, based on the story of a ten-year old girl who works as a housemaid in Lagos while dreaming of a realm where she is free, belongs to no one but herself, and can fly. Flying Girls addresses the injustice of the present, but through a vision of a safer imaginary future, especially for young girls, and a recommendation to society.

How is making a show for the Venice Biennale different to preparing a ‘normal’ exhibition? Or another biennial?

It is significantly different because as opposed to a ‘normal’ exhibition or another biennale (not of this stature) where the focus might be the artist or his / her inspiration, we are telling a collective national story, of the Nigerian people, of history. Perhaps never before has the saying, “it takes a village,” been more poignant. It took an entire country and then some to make this pavilion happen. From federal ministry meeting rooms in Abuja, to brainstorming sessions in gallery offices in our economic capital Lagos, to flights to and from Europe to secure exhibition space, from advice and research received from supporters and project team members in New York. Nigerians from all walks of life and all over the world have pooled together their time, energy and resources to make this a reality. I do not think there’s another biennale that requires this magnitude of exertion or that might inspire such a collective, collaborative spirit.

It took an entire country and then some to make this pavilion happen

There are a huge number of biennial exhibitions across the world nowadays. Do you think the Venice Biennale still has a special status, and why?

The Venice Biennale is the single most important exhibition in the world. Fact. Why? Because no other biennale is as representative of the world in its diverse artistry, forms, layers and colour. No other Biennale concentrates sheer force of will, inspiration and scale of artistic production in one city. I can imagine how busy the ports must be for instance taking in tons of metal, wood, bronze, and all other such materials from over 80 countries. All creations that represent millions and millions of experiences, narratives voices and stories that are finally being told. What other Biennale has that?

What does it mean to ‘represent’ one’s country? Do you find it problematic?

It’s a great honour. It doesn’t escape any of us involved that Nigeria, rich in artistic and cultural productivity, should have had its debut Pavilion long before now. This has been a long time coming. Yet we feel it is right on time as well. A lot has happened in Nigeria’s artistic history – as our exhibition will show – that has led up to this moment. We are coming full circle. To lead the charge in telling this story, at this opportune time should rank high in any citizen’s greatest accomplishments. It certainly ranks highest in mine.

The Venice audience is a diverse group. Who is most important to you? The artists, the gallerists, curators and critics concentrated around the opening, or the general public which visits in the months that follow?

Everybody is important. Especially in this moment seeing as it is our debut at the Venice Biennale. We want the rest of the world to see Nigeria in a fresh, alternate – if you will - light and not only in negative headlines. It simply isn’t our complete story. We want gallerists, curators and other artists to engage with the work of Nigerian artists on their own terms, telling their own stories as they want them to be told. Usually artists of African origin are lumped in one single group with the term ‘African art’ or ‘African contemporary art’ a burden and a single story that does not allow room for expression. This is an opportunity for critics to engage with Victor Ehikhamenor, Peju Alatise and Qudus Onikeku as artists like any other around the world whose only agenda is to speak truth to power.

Having a pavilion trains the spotlight on our art scene. It will open doors. We have full confidence in the work our artists will show and we expect it will spark and generate interest by critics, museum directors and gallerists in seeing more where that came from. Because of this, the art scene, stakeholders from artists to curators may now have the access, attention and reference they previously haven’t had or couldn’t provoke. Also it will be a source of inspiration, an event that will inspire and will be aspired to. I expect many artists now to pull up their bootstraps and put in the work to perhaps represent the country. The domino effect of this will be the creation of more valuable, richer work.

3 May 2017